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Conflicting Employment Trajectories Define Asia Pacific Region’s Second Quarter

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In a quarter marked by contrasts–ranging from a 26% increase in jobs in Australia to a 22% jobs decrease in Singapore, quarter-on-quarter–the Asia Pacific Region is a mixture of good, bad, and unremarkable performances.

“The ongoing economic and political instability both regionally and globally has caused countries to choose diverging paths, making for highly divergent outcomes,” said Richie Holliday, Chief Operations Officer, Morgan McKinley Asia Pacific.

Year-on-year permanent jobs available in the region were up 10%, and down by a minimal 2%, quarter-on-quarter. Contractor figures were down a more concerning 20% quarter-on-quarter, but up by a hefty 26% year-on-year. “Overall, there are more jobs available now than this time last year, but the unevenness of the growth has left some countries lagging behind others,” said Holliday.

Singapore in particular showed poor performance in Q2, causing concerns about its status as a financial services hub. A 51% decrease in candidates quarter-on-quarter indicates a gargantuan shift in the job seeker market there, as ex-pat and overseas-based (i.e. non Singaporean Employment Pass holder) individuals lose interest in a market they know they are unlikely to gain a visa to enter.

In addition to the regional ones, China is facing its own domestic contradictions. Seemingly teetering on the cusp of economic calamity, it again defied expectations as it reported 6.9% year-on-year growth in Q2. “Though China’s Q2 growth will allay some investor anxieties, fear of a series of bubbles is growing and resulting in more “wait-and-see anxiety” than the country can perhaps afford, long term,” said Holliday.

Japan and Australia were the only countries to see growth in job seekers, which were regionally up by 11% and 18% quarter-on-quarter, respectively.  As such, the region-wide figures are not alarming, as bonus season sets much of the H1 job seeker cycle, and candidates tend to register their interest in Q1. As Australia follows Singapore’s lead in pursuing restrictive immigration policies, the likelihood that the two will contribute to a dampening of regional job seeker figures is growing.

Mainland China

China, which saw a solid  7% increase in Q2 jobs, quarter-on-quarter over Q1, continues its positive hiring trajectory albeit at a  modest rate compared to the annual increases in the overall.  The increase in jobs available comes despite an economically precarious time for China that has left many wary of the medium and long term viability of the Chinese financial services market.

Candidates were down 16%, quarter-on-quarter which is attributable, in part, to applicants’ concerns about the underlying stability of the Chinese economy. “Institutions are struggling to find qualified candidates, but job seekers are fearful of entering an unstable market, and so are largely staying put,” said Holliday. “When market stability is lost, so is trust.”

Underpinning the deeper economic uncertainty are fears of bubbles in the housing, stock market and credit sectors. “If the government pivots from too lax to too restrictive, a contraction in the financial services sector is inevitable,” said Holliday.

China set itself the ambitious goal of having Shanghai become a global financial services hub by 2020 but, three years out, little progress has been made. “Despite  best intentions for growth, some institutions and individuals not already in the Chinese financial services market are showing little appetite, or in some cases no intention of trying to get in,” said Holliday.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong, which enjoyed a Q1 financial services employment boom, saw a Q2 9% decrease in jobs available and a 25% decrease in candidates, quarter-on-quarter.

“The post bonus season upsurge is over, with those looking for new positions having registered with us toward the end of the last quarter,” said Holliday.

As Hong Kong and China mark twenty years of “one country, two systems,” the underlying economic stability of Hong Kong remains good. “150 years of British rule has left an enduring mark on Hong Kong’s business culture which, thus far, has co-existed comfortably under the umbrella of a much bigger union, despite political and cultural tensions between the two,” said Holliday. Chinese influence is invariably growing, however, and financial services institutions are increasingly seeking applicants fluent in Mandarin and with good mainland China networks and connections, in order to fill positions.

Twenty years into the fifty year agreement with China, the latter’s promise of universal suffrage to the people of Hong Kong has not materialized and appears unlikely to. A new Chief Executive, who is seen as being particularly close to the Chinese government, has concerned Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists. Despite the political uncertainty, however, the island remains an attractive place for businesses due to its openness, ease of doing business and tax system, though that attractiveness does not extend to multinationals which remain wary of locating to Hong Kong for fear that political shifts in China and Britain may yet negatively impact the island.

Singapore

Similar to Hong Kong, Singapore saw an abundance in employment figures in Q1, followed by a hefty Q2 drop. Though bonus season always makes for a sleepy Q2 in Singapore, the quarter-on-quarter 22% decrease in jobs, and 51% decrease in job seekers in particular, is bolder than expected.

“To see a halving of the number of job applicants is quite a shock,” said Holliday, who attributed the drop to the new difficulty in hiring non-Singaporean workers instituted by the government. “The marked drop in enthusiasm has institutions looking elsewhere. We may yet see a hollowing out of the financial services industry here, unless care is taken to safe-guard the position of Singapore on the global stage.”

In response to the changes, while sales teams are being retained in Singapore, any roles that can be offshored are rapidly being deployed to places like the Philippines. Even in fintech, which continues to hire, the mood and pace is subdued as compared to some other locations. “At Morgan McKinley, we’re seeing the protectionism affect both our clients and our candidates, as well as our own internal staffing,” concluded Holliday.

Japan

After a sustained period of decline in jobs available, Japan appears to be recovering from the worst of its post merger bonanza. A 14% quarter-on-quarter increase in jobs available is mirrored by an 11% increase in job seekers, pointing to healthy,  even job growth. The April and May release of bonus announcements here (later than in many other APAC countries)  also plays a role in the upward turn.

“2016 was a turbulent year for financial services in Japan, setting 2017 off to a slow start, but all signs point toward a brighter year ahead,” said Holliday. “Japan tends to be more cautious in its business practices, so growth is likely to happen at a steady, more measured rate.”

As the financial services job market settles and inflation is being kept in check, market optimism is growing. Though the growth is in its early stages, expectations of new trade deals, especially with Britain and the European Union, promise to further optimize Japan for growth.

Australia

Australia’s quarter-on-quarter figures were uncharacteristically strong, headed skyward. A 26% increase in jobs and 18% increase in candidates were almost unrecognizable for Australia’s habitually steady and level employment market.

The spike is attributed to both positive and more sinister causes. “On the one hand, Australia just experienced record performances on stress tests and job demand, but on the other, we’re seeing a response to the government’s tightening of visa laws,” said Holliday. “There is some sentiment of a mini “gold rush” among our client base to get as many qualified people hired now, before it gets considerably more difficult.”

The visa changes, which make it more onerous for businesses to hire non-residents, come into effect in Q3 and are expected to dampen the economic boom on the ground. “Australia’s growing protectionism does run a risk of  dissuading some multinationals, and any further increased nationalism could further isolate it from the international business community.  That said, the encouraging solid and steady growth in Australia, which never officially fell into recession even through the darkest days of the GFC, still provides an attractive platform to many”

Contractors

Contracting jobs decreased by 20% quarter-on-quarter reflecting the sentiment on the ground across the region, insofar as new headcount mandates were satisfied mostly in the Q1 start-of-financial-year period for many clients.   As we progress further into the year we could see an uplift in the overall, as organisations continue to face margin-squeeze and pressure to address Fixed Costs.

Contracting jobs increased by 26% year-on-year, which continues the trend toward a more flexible ‘non-Perm’ workforce generally, and this is an encouraging outcome for those employed in this style of delivery.  It also reflects a growing, global cultural trend towards increasing attractiveness of the “gig economy” over the standard 9-5 permanent role.

Conclusion

The region overall remains resilient, with the exception of Singapore which shows signs of being in a nascent slump. As with Europe and the United States, institutions and individuals alike are navigating a climate of high economic uncertainty. Hopes of capitalizing on the political and economic precarity of Europe and America were dashed by the Asia Pacific Region’s own political and economic uncertainties, as well as the global reticence of institutions to make bold business decisions until the regulatory skies have cleared.